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What is the True Meaning of a Hypocrite?

Lori Colbo loves to write about her Christian faith and the Bible to encourage and inspire others.

Hypocrite means actor.

Hypocrite means actor.

What is the True Meaning of Hypocrite?

Many times Christians are called hypocrites because they do things that go against what the Bible teaches, teachings that they preach about. Non-Christians use this as a reason to not go to church or become a follower of Jesus Christ. I know of a pastor who says, "Well, there's always room for one more." I wouldn't say that to someone, but he has a point.

In the New Testament, Jesus, in a very confrontational way, directs the name "hypocrite" to the religious leaders of the day. And yet he does not call his disciple's hypocrites when they fail to live up to what Jesus preaches. What is the difference here? Is this Jesus' double standard? No, not at all.

Strong's Concordance (# 5272, 5273) states that the word hypocrite comes from the Greek hypokritis. Very simply put, it is an actor. One who pretends to be someone he is not. You could also call them charlatans, pretenders, phonies, deceivers, etc. The idea is that their acting or deception is intentional.

While the Christian commits a sin he hates it; whereas the hypocrite loves it while he forbears it.

— William Gurnall

Pharisees, the Ultimate Hypocrites

The Pharisees (the Jewish religious leaders in Jesus' day) were the epitome of hypocrisy. They claimed to live in obedience to the Old Testament law and made a show of doing so. Furthermore, they scrutinized everyone else to call them on their sin (the beam and the speck). They would make a big show out of going to the temple, and with much to-do, pay their tithes (10 percent of their income). They patted themselves on the back for their generous giving to the blind beggar at Nicanor Gate. They prayed long, eloquent, pious prayers in front of the crowds. They claimed they knew their Torah, taught it proudly, and went to the temple whenever the doors were open. They offered sacrifices, performed all their rituals, and celebrated all the religious holidays. And they were very quick to jump in and condemn Jews who disobeyed the law. They wore phylacteries with the word of God on them. On the outside, these men seemed to all the world to be pious, holy, righteous, and religious men, devoted to God in the practice of and enforcement of the law.

But Jesus saw through them. He got right in their face and called them hypocrites, broods of vipers, and whitewashed sepulchers in Matthew 23. It's a long passage, as it takes up most of the chapter. If you don't feel like reading the whole thing, just look at a few verses and realize that that was his discourse all the way to the end.

Jesus, in Matthew 6, warns the disciples not to behave like the hypocrites by sounding a horn when they do charitable deeds to be seen and praised by men (vs. 2); not pray out loud in the synagogue and in the street like the hypocrites do, so that men might see them and praise them; not to look like they are suffering when they are fasting like the hypocrites do, so that people will see how pious they are because they fast. Jesus follows each of these remarks with the exhortation to keep these things private, just between them and God.

Pharisees looking down on the common folk.

Pharisees looking down on the common folk.

The Story of the Sinner and the Pharisee

In Luke 18, Jesus tells the story of a Pharisee who was wealthy and highly regarded as a man of God and a good citizen, and a tax collector, the most despised of men in the land. Tax collectors did nothing but lie and cheat people out of their money to fill their pockets. They did not have friends anywhere, except for other tax collectors. The Pharisees were seemingly holy on the outside but were thieves, cheaters, heartless, and self-serving. This story is quite telling about the difference between a proud, self-righteous man (the Pharisee), and a tax collector who came face to face with his sin and repented before God. Guess who God forgives?

The answer is that the tax collector was forgiven and welcome in heaven when his time on earth was done. Why? Because of his sincere repentance, utter humility, and wholehearted desire to be right before God. Not only that, but he never pretended to be a holy person. The Pharisee looked down his nose at the tax collector, feeling superior and trying very hard to show God how pure and holy he himself was. Jesus knew both of their hearts. The Pharisee is the hypocrite because he is playing the actor by doing all the outward religious actions, but in his heart, he could care less what God requires of his heart, and his life underneath is evil. Paul got it right when he said, "For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death" (2 Cor. 7:10).

The Pharisees minded what God spoke, but not what He intended. They were busy in the outward work of the hand, but incurious of the affections and choice of the heart. So God was served in the letter, they did not much inquire into His purpose, and therefore they were curious to wash their hands, but cared not to purify their hearts.

— Jeremy Taylor

The Adulterous Woman and Her Accusers

In John 8, a group of religious leaders of Jesus' day brought to him a woman caught in the act of adultery. They told him "Lord, we caught her in the very act. Moses said she should be stoned. What do you say?" The Bible says that Jesus stooped down and began drawing on the sand. We are not told what he wrote, but he finally looked up at them and said, "He who is without sin, throw the first stone." Here is the rest of the story:

Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?”

She said, “No one, Lord.”

And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”

Notice their consciences were convicted. That means that whatever Jesus was writing (there is speculation he was writing down their sins), along with his words to "cast the first stone if you are sinless," pierced their consciences, and they suddenly knew their own sins. Considering their pompousness, arrogance, self-righteousness, and lives of hypocrisy, it says a lot that their consciences were pricked, an unusual occurrence for them.

The woman did not get off scot free with Jesus' blessing to continue on with her way of life. Rather, He saw her sense of shame, her repentant heart, and thus told her "Go, and sin no more."

It is sad that those who consciences were pricked did not repent.

The woman caught in adultery was repentant. Jesus forgave her and told her "Go, and sin no more."

The woman caught in adultery was repentant. Jesus forgave her and told her "Go, and sin no more."

What About the Sinning Disciple?

Here is an interesting story from the last supper. Jesus informs Peter that he is about to be tested.

And the Lord said, “Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But, I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren.”

But he said to Him, “Lord, I am ready to go with You, both to prison and to death.”

Then He said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster shall not crow this day before you will deny three times that you know Me.”

It happened just as Jesus predicted. When Peter heard that rooster crow after denying Jesus three times, he locked eyes with Jesus. He ran away and wept in sorrow and shame at what he had done. Later on, after Jesus rose from the dead, he told Mary Magdalene to go tell the disciples and Peter that He had risen. Later on, Jesus appeared on the beach and invited Peter, James, and John for breakfast. Jesus knew Peter had a repentant heart. He restored Peter and gave him a calling - to feed His sheep.

Peter went on to lead the first Church and preached one of the greatest soul-winning sermons ever on the day of Pentecost. Peter was not proud of his sin, he did not deny that he had sinned. But he turned away from it and back to God. God knows our hearts. God once told Samuel the prophet "God looks on the heart, not outward appearances."

The Difference

The difference between an erring saint and a true hypocrite is this: The hypocrite lives a deliberate life of pretending in both worlds. He is not just one who has occasional moments of hypocrisy; it's a consistent lifestyle of deliberate deception. Because they are often very good actors, we may not always be able to discern that they are phony.

And yet, we have all had hypocritical moments in our lives, myself very much included. Most Christians are just average, garden variety, sinners, who seek to live in a way that pleases God. But as human beings, we blow it time and again. A humble, genuine believer will, upon realizing his sin, hate it, own it, be sorry for it, make his amends, and turn from the behavior. Sometimes it takes a long time to see it in ourselves. Other times, we are playing a role in the drama of life because we can be selfish and prideful. We need to be salt and light to this dying world. So we must keep our eyes on Jesus, the author, and perfector of our faith.

Hypocrites in the Church? Yes, and in the lodge and at the home. Don't hunt through the Church for a hypocrite. Go home and look in the mirror. Hypocrites? Yes. See that you make the number one less."

— Billy Sunday

Judas Iscariot, Epitome of a Hypocrite

There was another disciple who betrayed Jesus on that night He was arrested. We all know the man - Judas Iscariot. A hypocrite if ever there was one. Judas was the treasurer of Jesus's ministry. He held the purse. He dipped into it whenever he wanted to. He may have fooled everyone else, but he did not fool Jesus. In his greed, Judas made a deal to sell his soul and deliver Jesus into the hands of the religious leaders for thirty pieces of silver. At the last supper, Jesus excused Judas from the table to do what he must do.

Later that night a crowd of leaders came to take Jesus into custody. Judas told them that he would identify Jesus with a kiss. Brazenly, he kissed Jesus and said, "Greetings, Rabbi."

Jesus said to him, "Do you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?" Then Jesus was taken away. Judas realized what he had done and tried to give the money back, but it was not accepted. He ran away and hung himself. Sometimes hypocrisy can have dire consequences. What a tragic story.

"Are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?" Jesus asked him.

"Are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?" Jesus asked him.

Jesus Died for All of Us

Some people are hypocrite hounds. They are always looking at others to see a fault in them, evidence that they are hypocrites. It's not hard to see that they are trying to mask their own hypocrisy; looking for any excuse to not follow Jesus or attend church. If you know a hypocrite hound, pray for them. God can pierce through the darkest heart with His love. Pray that they will come to the Jesus who died for everyone, including that person. What we can do is stay close to Jesus, stay in His word, walk in the Spirit, and be mindful every day of our thoughts, words, and deeds. When we fail (and we will) we repent with godly sorrow and return to Jesus for forgiveness and restoration. What a friend we have in Jesus.

© 2011 Lori Colbo

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